As additives go, it’s still the ‘worst of the worst’ – with even more support from science and a brand new ‘spinoff’

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April 7, 2015


With this Saturday designated as Citizens for Health’s third annual Read Your Labels Day, we’ve finally come down to the number-one additive we strongly suggest you shun when examining those ingredients labels and deciding what products to put in your shopping cart.  And it’s the same one that topped our list last year – although this time, we’ve added a new variant that has started popping up on more and more of those labels.

Number 1: High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS (along with ‘fructose’)

There can no longer be any doubt about it – most consumers simply don’t want high fructose corn syrup in the processed foods and beverages they buy.  That was made quite evident back in January by a Nielsen international health and wellness survey’s finding that “in the U.S., high fructose corn syrup was public enemy #1 and 65 percent of consumers said it was very or moderately important to buy products with labels touting its absence.”

And that preference has been reflected in the increasing number of processed food packages on which “no high fructose corn syrup” is prominently displayed, as well as by food companies that have announced they are dropping the sweetener from products. (There are, however, instances where claims of “no HFCS” are misleading, as we shall see).

Not that the HFCS manufacturers haven’t been attempting to fight back. Their lobbying group, the Corn Refiners Association, has continued to make HFCS appear to be pretty much the same thing as the sugar (or sucrose) it replaced (even though the Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2013 that it isn’t), in addition to sponsoring university surveys of consumers purporting to show that they suffer from unfounded “food fears” fanned by Internet rumors.

Politicians have also helped to blur the distinction.  Recently, for example, Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) proposed a bill labeled the “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2015” (or SWEET Act), the text of which includes statements such as “Adults who drink one sugar-sweetened beverage or more per day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, regardless of income or ethnicity.”(Of course, almost all the beverages it talks about contain no sugar, only HFCS)

The media and various web sites have also done their part to compound the confusion.  Just last week, for example, an article at Rodale News claimed “research suggests that a steady diet of sugary, processed foods can mess with insulin in the brain” which “may trigger what some experts call type 3 diabetes, aka Alzheimer’s disease” (the term ”sugary” being frequently applied to foods containing HFCS). And stories at both The Washington Post and the Huffington Post websites both featured a video from the American Chemical Society that claimed “the current scientific consensus is that there’s no difference” between the two sweeteners.

But even while making that assertion, the narrator of that video had to acknowledge that fructose “can do a number on your liver” and had been directly linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Maybe that’s because so many studies have been finding that to be the case, it can no longer be ignored.

The key difference that research has uncovered

In just the past year, for example, Harvard Medical School researchers found that fructose “may have a particularly deleterious effect on health” by making people obese, less responsive to insulin and prone to develop fatty liver disease and abnormal blood lipid levels, which are precursors to diabetes and heart disease. They determined that blood levels of the hormone FGF21, which helps regulate the accumulation of fat, undergo a rapid and acute elevation following fructose ingestion. (Raised FGF21 levels in both humans and animals had already been linked by one of the study’s  lchexead authors to obesity, insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.)

Their conclusion was based on a study involving 21 adult subjects, about half of whom were lean and fit and the rest suffering from obesity and at high risk for diabetes. All were given either 75 grams of glucose, the same amount of fructose or a mixture of the two to drink at various times.

In all subjects, the glucose, which is absorbed into the bloodstream and into fat and muscle tissues and converted into energy, had no immediate effect on levels of FGF21, with only mild changes detected three or four hours later. But the fructose, which is absorbed directly by the liver and raises triglycerides that can lead to problems such as diabetes and heart disease, caused levels of the hormone to sharply increase by 400 percent on average within just two hours of being consumed.

All of which might help explain the results of a 2013 University of Southern California study that found that countries using high-fructose corn syrup had rates of diabetes that were about 20% higher than countries that didn’t mix the sweetener into foods.

But the persistent misidentification of HFCS as “sugar” hasn’t been the only source of confusion surrounding this laboratory sweetener.  It’s also often referred to by the media as “corn syrup,” which is actually the name of an older sweetening agent that contains no fructose. And within the past few months, we’ve found a couple of products that claim to have “no high fructose corn syrup” but do list “fructose” as an ingredient.

According to a posting on the website of the Corn Refiners Association, “fructose” is the term currently being used instead of HFCS-90, a type of high fructose corn syrup that’s 90 percent fructose, which is a much higher amount than the 42 or 55 percent found in regular HFCS and allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. When we contacted Kellogg’s about one such instance, however, a company spokesperson replied that “Kellogg products in the U.S. do not contain this ingredient. The ingredient ‘fructose’ on our packaging is not high fructose corn syrup and is simply ‘fructose’ as listed.”

Whatever the case, what’s becoming ever more evident is that “fructose” that’s neither bound with fiber, as it is naturally in fruit, or with glucose to form sucrose, has a far different effect on our bodies than traditional sugar — one that can lead to metabolic dysfunction and a whole range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart trouble and even pancreatic cancer.  And that whether it’s a component of high fructose corn syrup or simply “fructose” per se, its continued presence in so many food products is hazardous to both our individual and collective health.

On that point, both consumers and scientists are increasingly in agreement.